“Welcome הבאים ברוכים.”

These three words, written in two different languages and faded in the background in many more, wrap around my left wrist on a fraying, fabric bracelet that connects me to a special place over four thousand miles away. These three words, illustrated along an identically designed banner, are also the ones that hang above the entryway to this very same place.

This place is Szarvas.

There’s no introduction that one could give to Szarvas that would really do it justice. Quite literally, it can be described as an international Jewish camp nestled on the banks of the Körös river in Szarvas, Hungary. The Szarvas Fellowships, the program which I took part in, consists of 25 North American Fellows that are given the opportunity to meet, celebrate, explore, and share experiences with their Jewish student peers from around the world at Szarvas camp.

At least that’s how the Szarvas website describes it. And it’s fair, really, because Szarvas isn’t a place that can adequately be described in words.

I entered Szarvas with feelings that crossed between excited and unsure. From the outlook, it appeared to be just another Jewish summer program, fascinating in its location and international population, but lacking distinction in its program description. It provided a pluralistic environment, with programming intended to aid fellows in evaluating and exploring their religious roots and backgrounds. Pretty average, right?

Wrong – and I couldn’t be more so.

The vibrant and profuse international culture of Szarvas was apparent immediately upon our arrival at camp on a Sunday. A mere half-hour after unloading our buses, I was introduced to the beauty of the dining hall – one of the Szarvas’ most sacred and special places. There was not a single moment throughout the entire meal, and every one that was to follow, that was free of a national chant or a Jewish song permeating the space. Every camper and madrich (counselor), every director and specialty staffer, joined in on singing, yelling, and moving to the different chants belonging to each country. As one country’s cheer came to an end, another one began, the same energy and enthusiasm felt by the room all over again. The nationalistic pride evident by each individual was so clear, yet the support and zealousness that was shown for other nations was still tremendous. To culminate the meal, the fervent and passionate singing of Israeli and Jewish songs began. Much of the camp danced vehemently around the dining hall in the form of a Congo line, some kids clapped and swayed standing on their chairs, while other, younger children sat on the shoulders of madrichim and elder campers whom they had met no more than an hour ago. The zest and fire apparent in each and every individual did not die down once. Less than an hour into camp, very few of us knew each other, yet the ecstasy and joy with which we danced, delighted, and celebrated our religion together displayed us as a closer community than any. We were one group, a common people, united by just one aspect: our Judaism.
This unity, this connection and community, epitomizes Szarvas.

The international interaction and connection was an aspect prevalent in camp over the next two weeks. Daily mifgashim (meetings) provided for the direct interaction between at least two different countries in the forms of games, programming, and even more dancing. Standard camp activities, such as swimming and singing, were made special as we always joined together to partake in these activities with another country. Free time was perhaps most meaningful; it was the time when we made true bonds and built long-lasting friendships with campers from around the world. Language barriers were hardly an issue; our common passions, interests, and enthusiasm for Judaism allowed us to connect on an unprecedented level. I entered Szarvas expecting no more than casual conversations with the international campers; I left with tremendous bonds that I will cherish forever.

The international vibrancy of Szarvas is a unique and spectacular sight that I will continue to treasure for many years to come. My experiences at Szarvas with the international Jewish community touched me tremendously, yet the experiences that I shared with my American group did even more so.

Although our group frequently interacted, both formally and informally, with the delegations of other countries, some of our programming was limited to our group only. The two most significant aspects on our unique agenda were our daily peulot and check-ins.

Our peulot, one-hour lessons every day, were sessions particular to our group that covered a wide array of topics with one common theme: exploring our Jewish identities, discovering which of our beliefs ground us, and delving into aspects of the Jewish community and religion that we would not normally think about.

However, it was not the programming of peulot but rather our check-ins that taught me more than I had ever learned before. A process that only our group partook in, check-ins were daily sessions during which the twenty-eight of us (twenty-five campers and three madrichim), gathered in a circle to share our personal Jewish narratives. The check-in process was the most moving and impactful experience that I have ever partaken in.

Our check-ins were held in a sacred space. Not physically, but mentally. Prior to the opening of each session, our group joined together in a chant that marked the beginning of the process for that day. With this chant, each member of our group temporarily separated him or herself from the outside world, bringing him/herself fully into the space – mentally, emotionally, and physically. Following a count-off by Jina, our female madrich, each voice was heard as we recited, “You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it, you better never let it go. You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo.” The words chanted could not be more appropriate for the process. Check-ins were truly an opportunity that came once in a lifetime; in full safety, acceptance, and comfort, we could pour out the most intimate, painful, and moving aspects of our young lives.

And we did exactly that. The safe space that was created allowed for most members of our group to share more about themselves than they ever had before. Check-ins were incredibly emotional, often accompanied by tears, and simultaneously heartwarming, always ending in a warm wave of hugs and words of admiration. The amount of emotion expressed was beautiful; it truly emphasized how deep each individual dug in sharing aspects of him or herself.
My own check-in held great personal significance in my exploration of my identity. For the first time ever, I laid out every private, poignant, and emotional aspect of my young life. In front of a group of people whom I had met less than a week ago, I shared more about myself than I ever had with every individual in my life combined. And as I shared, I explored. Pouring out my “narrative” did not come as naturally and obviously as I had expected it to; because I had never unified every component of my story, combining and sharing it as a cohesive piece allowed me to take a look at how every aspect of my past had contributed to where I currently stood. The questions that I was asked following my session allowed me to dig deep into my beliefs and to ponder aspects of my Judaism that I had failed to consider previously. I believe it is my check-in that truly began my journey of self-discovery and exploration that I will continue on for years to come. It is my check-in that allowed me to realize what I stood for and what I aspired for religiously. However, it is my check-in that also proved to me how many questions I have yet to answer, and how opaque my religious identity truly is. And therefore, it is my check-in that propelled me to want to discover it.

Inspirational, poignant, and incredibly thought provoking, the check-in process taught me more than any formal education ever could. While sharing my own check-in was personally impactful, listening to the check-ins of others was an experience that I can just barely fathom. It was during check-ins when the beautiful diversity of our group truly came across. As fellows shared their personal stories one after another, I was introduced to more facets of and differences in Judaism than I ever knew existed. My appreciation for Judaism grew with each new story as the complexity of our religion became apparent, and as I was able to hear first-hand how different the impact of Judaism was for every individual. I was repeatedly inspired by the devotion and passion that each one of my peers shared for Judaism, I was touched and motivated by the tremendous amount of knowledge that each one possessed, and I was moved by their acceptance of every different belief, practice, and view that was expressed. I left each check-in with a growing craving to learn more about my religion, to heighten my religious observance, to connect myself more strongly to the Jewish community, and to find new, meaningful, and beautiful ways of connecting with G-d. The impact that each and every one of my peers had on me was tremendous, and I could never thank them enough for it. I will forever be inspired by every single one of them.

Above all, the aspect of Szarvas that I will always treasure most is the community, the family, which was created among our American group. As I sit at my laptop, powerfully hammering away and typing faster than my mind can keep up, I still struggle to fathom the relationships that I formed over my two weeks at Szarvas. The 25 individuals with whom I shared my life-changing journey provided me with a feeling of safety and comfort that I had never felt before. For the first time in my life, they made me feel important. They made me feel as though my story was worth sharing; they took away my discomfort and my shame, and replaced it with a feeling of honor and pride. For the very first time, I let go of any shells that I put myself in, released any boundaries I had, and poured out every aspect of my true personality. And to each and every one of my co-Fellows – I cannot thank you enough for providing me with the space to do that. You’ve become my best friends. The bonds that I have formed with some of you are truly closer than any I’ve ever had in my life, and I could not be more grateful.

Szarvas is a place that provided me with the comfort and safety to begin to share and discover my identity. Szarvas is a place that ignited within me a tremendous sense of pride for my religion, for my culture, and for my people. Szarvas is a place that taught me to appreciate where I come from, while to simultaneously value the exploration of where I want to go. But most significantly, Szarvas is a place that provided me with a family to guide me and to support me through each and every one of these realizations.

And there is no question that the family that I gained at Szarvas is what augmented my experience to what it was. I never once felt the need to explain myself. For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable sharing my background, expressing my beliefs, and conveying my true Jewish self. My usual feelings of inferiority and shame were disintegrated, and instead replaced with feelings of incredible safety and comfort that allowed me explore who I was as I never had before.

“Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere… sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.” This quotation, plastered on the front cover of the journal handed to me by Rabbi Seth Braunstein on our very first day, encapsulates what Szarvas was for me. Within two weeks, I explored, discovered, and learned more about myself than I had in my sixteen years on earth. I realized what I stood for, I solidified my preexisting beliefs, I discovered my passions, and I developed a craving to continue to learn more. Perhaps most importantly, within these two weeks, I embarked on a journey that I will continue on for the rest of my life. I was introduced to the beauty of questioning; and once I have begun to question, the search for answers is never-ending. And as frightening as that it, it is also so, so marvelous.